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Uneven Justice: A Critical Look at FCPA Enforcement

The week starts with a guest post from Michael Volkov.

Volkov (here [1]) is a partner at Mayer Brown LLP. His practice focuses on white collar defenses, FCPA enforcement and compliance, and litigation. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent those of his law firm, Mayer Brown LLP. He can be reached at mvolkov@mayerbrown.com.



By Michael Volkov

The United States is a nation of laws: badly written and randomly enforced. ~Frank Zappa

Much has been written about the overall fairness of the Justice Department’s and the Securities and Exchange Commission’s aggressive FCPA enforcement program. Some have argued that DOJ and SEC have engaged in uneven justice: corporations plead to non-FCPA offenses, pay big fines, and continue business as usual. Others argue that DOJ has failed to prosecute individual executives and officers, or to ensure that corporations are debarred or suspended from continuing to sell to the federal government.

As a former federal prosecutor with nearly 20 years experience in the criminal justice system, I can assure you that some of the criticisms are accurate but some completely miss the mark. Last year, the Senate Judiciary Committee examined the controversy surrounding FCPA enforcement, and this year the House Judiciary Committee is planning to look at the issue.

DOJ is proud of its enforcement program. And rightly so – they have resuscitated a program which was dormant for years which now collects over one half of all criminal fines imposed each year in the United States. That is an impressive record.

Aside from the fundamental deficiencies inherent in DOJ’s voluntary disclosure process, DOJ claims that it gives adequate credit for corporate compliance programs, early cooperation and full disclosure. In response some suggest that plea agreements which are designed to protect companies from debarment and include pleas to non-FCPA charges are unfair. Part of that point is correct; the other part is flat out wrong.

Our criminal justice system operates day-to-day based on plea agreements. In the federal system, over 90 percent of federal cases are resolved through plea agreements. As part of that process, charge-bargaining is a critical component. DOJ’s decision to permit corporations, or typically country-specific subsidiaries to plead guilty to a non-FCPA offense, is in keeping with this long tradition. The underlying conduct as described in the plea agreement is known to all – the company engaged in systematic and widespread bribery. Nothing more, nothing less. To extrapolate from such a plea that DOJ is not enforcing the law is misguided and ignores the realities of the plea bargaining process.

On the other hand, DOJ’s willingness to forego debarment and/or suspension is certainly an issue that needs to be examined. As Professor Koehler testified at the Senate Judiciary Committee, BAE was awarded a government contract on the same day it plead guilty to a non-FCPA offense but paid a criminal fine over $400 million. That is certainly uneven justice, and Senators and policymakers should have taken note of this ironic enforcement twist.

Senator Specter and others have criticized the Justice Department for failing to include individual corporate executives and officers in its enforcement actions. The Justice Department’s Antitrust Division has a much better record on this score – corporations and individuals are prosecuted in criminal antitrust cases with equal vigor and results. Why has DOJ shied away from linking corporate cooperation to requiring cooperation against individual executives and officers at the offending company?

If the goal of DOJ’s enforcement program is corporate compliance, then the enforcement program needs to be recalibrated. Deterrence is an admirable objective and will certainly increase compliance, but DOJ has more tools available to it to encourage and promote cooperation. DOJ’s antitrust amnesty/leniency is an example of a program which has been incredibly successful on the enforcement and the compliance ends. While there are certainly problems with the application of a cartel-focused (multi-actor) model to FCPA cases, there are lessons which can be learned from the amnesty/leniency program.

We all aspire to equal justice and we all admire the image of justice that is blind as the hallmark of our judicial system. But right now what is needed is for justice to listen so that it operates with fairness and equal justice for all.